The Australia of Ray Lawler’s iconic drama, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is, on the surface, very different to the Australia of today. In the spring of 1955 when the play was first performed, Australia was still reeling from World War II, working women were still a novelty, and our idea of “new technology” was a television set.
However, more than half a century later, the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s production of The Doll still manages to earn four curtain calls and reviews calling the production “a triumph”.
How does the play still manage to reach an audience, when it was written in a time where almost everything was different? How does it remain, as the STCSA’s Chris Pitman says, one of the “great Australian plays”? This interpretation, chosen to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Doll, plays on the elements of the story that are universal – fleeting youth, the pressures of masculinity and femininity, and the relentless passing of time.
Chris Pitman, who has returned to the company to play the role of Roo, says the play’s rollercoaster of emotions are a big part of its appeal. “It twists and turns from happy to sad in a very skilful way,” he said. The Doll follows the story of cane cutters Roo and Barney, as they return from their annual seven month stint in the fields to pass the summer with their lady friends Olive and Nancy. However, Nancy has since married and Olive has brought in newcomer Pearl to fill her space, and the once easy, seventeen-year-old tradition begins to fall apart at the seams.
[pull_left]Pitman said the mannerisms and the rough-and-ready attitude of Roo was familiar to him. “I live in the country myself – I do physical labour when I’m not working [as an actor][/pull_left]
Although reviews of the 2015 production have commented on a lack of energy in the play, they have been positive overall, particularly praising the production’s innovative set and the comic elements of the play – a surprise for anyone building expectations from the posters or promotional material.
“I would say it’s hilariously funny,” says Pitman, citing the quick emotional transitions as the key to both the show’s comedy and its tragedy. “It doesn’t let you sit in a moment or a mood or a state or an emotion for too long,” he said. Although Pitman himself has played many parts with the STCSA and elsewhere, he says that the role of Roo in The Doll is a particularly special part to play, both because of the play’s prestige and his relationship with the character. As a rural man himself, Pitman said the mannerisms and the rough-and-ready attitude of Roo was familiar to him. “I live in the country myself – I do physical labour when I’m not working [as an actor],” he said.
Although many aspects of Roo’s character were easy for Pitman to understand and replicate, he says the role still required research and new experiences; Pitman said he was shocked by how “organised and regimented” the cane cutters of the 1950s were, and that he worked hard to bring this pressure into his portrayal of Roo.
After the close of The Doll, Pitman will revert from researching and performing as a labourer back to being one; he will return to his rural property for some time off from performing, with no immediate performance plans or upcoming projects.
N.S.W. Season Details for Summer of the Seventeenth Doll:
Venue: Glen Street Theatre, corner Glen Street and Blackbutts Road, Belrose
Performance Dates: 19 May – 24 May 2015
Performance Times: Wed – Sat 8pm; Sat 2pm; Sun 5pm
Running time: Approx 2 hrs, including interval
Ticket Prices: $71 – $46. $16 Student Rush tickets available 48 hours prior to each performance upon the presentation of valid full-time student ID (subject to availability and excludes Opening Night).